Here are some goals and strategies for how to live a healthy and happy life. Some of what I say here comes from personal experience and opinion, but a decent amount is evidence-based. For me, these are aspirational; I don’t live up to them to the degree I’d like. And to the extent I do, it’s partly because I’ve been lucky enough to stumble into them, rather than because I consciously set out to achieve them.
Income is one of the best predictors of happiness, and education is one of the clearest routes to higher income. In the United States, the boost in happiness is smaller beyond a household income of about $75,000, so you don’t need to get a medical degree or even necessarily a four-year college degree. But schooling has lots of other benefits too, from meeting potential friends to learning self-discipline to getting a better understanding of how things work.
For those considering college, the cost is often an impediment. But the “sticker” price of college tends to be misleading; for students with limited financial resources, there is lots of financial aid along with income-based loan repayment options. The problem is that few people know about these.
What if you can’t get into a good and/or affordable four-year college? Consider community college. They’re widely available, they admit most students who have a high school degree, and they’re relatively inexpensive. They also allow flexibility in course scheduling. A two-year certificate or degree is helpful, and also offers opportunity to transfer to a four-year college if that’s what you want.
HAVE A PURPOSE
Do things you feel competent at and enjoy.
How do you figure out what that is? It’s difficult to decide what you like and what you’re good at simply by thinking. Better to experiment. Try new things. If they don’t work or you don’t like them, try something else. And see failure as helpful, not shameful; it gives you useful information. Read Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, Designing Your Life. Also Robert H. Frank, “The Incalculable Value of Finding a Job You Love,” New York Times.
Spend a lot of time with friends and family. Resist the temptation to settle for small amounts of “quality time.” Commit to more hours, more days, more weeks. It doesn’t have to be just family and friends; pets, neighbors, workmates, teammates, support group members, acquaintances, or others may do just as well.
TREAT OTHERS THE WAY YOU’D LIKE THEM TO TREAT YOU
Jesus’s version: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Mother Theresa’s: “Only kindness matters.”
LIVE A “GOOD ENOUGH” LIFE
Dream big, shoot for the stars, aim to excel, compare yourself to others. But don’t go overboard. If you spend too much time and effort striving for something better, you may go through life with limited enjoyment. And there’s so much to enjoy. Don’t miss it because you’re obsessed with getting better or getting ahead.
DON’T DEFINE WORTH BY ACCOMPLISHMENTS
Salary, job title, employer, college — these things too often determine how we assess a person. Much more important is the type of person you are. Are you kind, empathetic, helpful to those who depend on you, and also to those who don’t?
Eat mostly or only vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts, and seeds, in unprocessed or minimally processed form, and in moderate quantities. Drink mostly water. Or as Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food) puts it: “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.”
We know this mainly from comparative analysis of diets (eating patterns) — of people in different places, of people in the same place over time, and of people who move between places. There is a great deal of food science research on the health impact of individual substances (omega-3s, cholesterol) and individual foods, but this has yielded limited information about what we should and shouldn’t eat, perhaps because scientists haven’t yet identified the really important substances, or more likely because there are complex interactions within and between foods that outweigh the impact of specific substances.
Dan Buettner (The Blue Zones and The Blue Zones Solution) and his research team studied places — in Costa Rica, Greece, Italy, Japan, and the United States — where a larger-than-normal share of the population lives to age 100 or more. It isn’t only about living longer; the centenarians in these places have “healthy lives with vitality until the very end.” Buettner identifies several commonalities: (1) Eat mostly plants, no processed foods, not too much. (2) Move frequently. (3) Have a purpose. (4) Belong. (5) Relieve stress.
Dean and Anne Ornish (Undo It!) note that there are (at least) nine pathways through which these eating and lifestyle strategies may contribute to good health: “chronic inflammation and immune system dysfunction; chronic emotional stress, depression, overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, stress hormones, and lack of sleep; gene expression and sirtuins; telomeres; the microbiome; oxidative stress, cellular metabolism, and apoptosis; angiogenesis; stasis.” Scientists don’t currently know which of these, if any, matter more than others.
An excellent summary of what we know and don’t know, with both a good overview and lots of detail, is Mark Bittman and David L. Katz, How to Eat: All Your Food and Diet Questions Answered, 2020. A few passages:
- “What we don’t have is a single randomized trial, beginning before birth, lasting a lifetime, enrolling tens of thousands — to show once and for all ‘what diet is best.’ What we do have is a mountain of evidence, built a bit at a time, supporting the theme of … real foods, close to natural form, mostly plants, augmented a little bit by almost whatever else you like. It’s that simple.” (p. 14)
- “We don’t need to create randomized controlled trials to prove in a less controversial way that fruits and vegetables are good for people…. We have no randomized controlled trials to prove the harms of smoking…. Are there other, more reliable ways to learn about nutrition? Absolutely. The truly reliable way is to look at the big picture — to see the elephant — not just a piece; to look across the broadest expanse of evidence, including but not limited to intervention trials, what we know about our own native past, and what we can observe about the fate of whole populations over generations. Different kinds of evidence are like different pieces of the same, great puzzle — you need lots of different pieces to complete the picture. It’s critical to consider knowledge that existed before we invented the randomized controlled trial. There were clear patterns in populations: There were populations with traditional ways of eating associated with low levels of chronic disease, and populations with ways of eating that were associated with high levels of chronic disease.” (pp. 202, 208)
- “What do you mean by the terms ‘whole food’ and ‘real food’? It’s pretty simple: food that’s as close to ‘natural’ — that is, as nature produces it — as possible. We know that ultraprocessed (or hyperprocessed) foods are bad for us: That’s the majority of food invented in the twentieth century — junk food. Whole food is generally food that hasn’t been tinkered with much, that doesn’t need a label, and is its own ingredient.” (pp. 82-83)
- “Should I be eating high or low in fat? What about high or low in carbs? It doesn’t matter. You don’t need to worry about it. One of the greatest distractions in modern thinking about diets is how high or low a dietary pattern is in particular macronutrients.” (p. 15)
- “You don’t need any particular food to have a great diet. If you have a great diet, you will derive maximum health, vitality, and longevity benefits from it, and no so-called superfood will add to that…. Overwhelmingly, the evidence links large-scale dietary pattern, not the addition of ‘superfoods,’ to health. One of the reasons we struggle so in our apparent confusion about diet is that there’s a lot of research attempting to isolate the effects of any one food. That’s nearly impossible to do.” (pp. 138-39)
- “Eat a variety of wholesome foods, and the nutrients will take care of themselves…. What do these magical nutrient compounds do? We don’t know exactly. That’s the beauty of it. They make you healthy…. The notion that you can define the quality of a diet on the basis of a particular nutrient level is misguided and antiquated, and it needs to be abandoned. It’s really about the food as a whole, not food’s component parts.” (pp. 75, 85, 201)
On health grounds alone, the available evidence doesn’t favor a plant-only diet over a plant-predominant diet. Ethical and environmental considerations strengthen the case for eating only plants. There also is reason to worry about growing antibiotic resistance due to factory farming.
A generation or even a decade ago, eating a diet of mostly or only minimally-processed plants in the United States likely meant a lot of blah meals. Happily, that’s no longer true. There are hundreds of tasty, healthy plant-only dishes you can make and some (though not enough) that you can buy. If all else fails, see this.
Here are a few additional short reads, podcasts, and videos on how to eat well:
- David L. Katz, Plant Proof podcast with Simon Hill, Episode 108, 2020.
- Jane E. Brody, “Secrets to Lasting Weight Loss,” New York Times, 2018.
- Movies inevitably gloss over important details, but these are good: Forks Over Knives, 2011; Game Changers, 2019; Code Blue, 2020.
It doesn’t have to be strenuous. Low-intensity activity is good enough. Walk, cycle, garden, cook, clean the house or yard, water the plants, take the stairs, hike, do tai chi or yoga, swim.
Slow down, pause to appreciate (“smell the roses”), listen to music, laugh, smile, breathe slowly and deliberately, meditate, do some gentle stretching, eat slowly and without phones or other electronic distractions, get enough sleep, pray, give thanks, forgive.
If you’ve been lucky — in your genes, parents, teachers, friends, job, partner, or other things — give something back. A good way to do this is by volunteering or donating, but for some people the best way might be by being better at your job, or being a better neighbor, or joining a social movement, or getting involved in politics.
If you have more money than you need: There now is good evidence that nongovernmental organizations can save lives in the world’s poorest countries, and we know approximately how much it costs to do so. See Peter Singer, The Life You Can Save, 2nd edition, 2019 (available free online).